With rise of AI, concerns about ritual automation grow in Hinduism, Buddhism

Just as the rapid rise of artificial intelligence has raised new concerns as well as utopian hopes about a post-human future in work, religious professionals are debating the real prospects of “spiritual robots” replacing worshippers’ performance of traditional rituals, writes anthropologist Holly Walters in the online magazine The Conversation (March 13). The concern about what can be called religious automation is particularly acute in Hindu and other Eastern traditions that are based on intricate and daily rituals. In temples across India, a robotic arm is being used to maneuver candles in front of deities; in Kerala, there is even an animatronic temple elephant. This “kind of religious robotic usage has led to increasing debates about the use of AI and robotic technology in devotion and worship.”

“Some devotees and priests feel that AI represents a new horizon in human innovation that will lead to the betterment of society, while others worry that using robots to replace practitioners is a bad omen for the future,” Walters adds. Even before AI and computers, ritual automation has existed in South Asian religions—from wind-powered Buddhist prayer wheels to special pots that drip water continuously for Hindu bathing rituals. There have also been religious stories from Hindu epics about mechanized icons. The anxiety about AI and robots among religious professionals dovetails with the decreasing number of young people willing to devote themselves to religious professions over the past few decades. “Furthermore, with many families living in a diaspora scattered across the world, priests or ‘pundits’ are often serving smaller and smaller communities,” Walters writes.

Source: Image Journal.

But the concern also stems from the question of whether the robots represent progress, since they only reflect the religious views of the engineers who program them, as well as the deeper fear that such technology may be better than humans at performing rituals and worshipping gods. This is especially the case for religions like Hinduism and Buddhism which emphasize “orthopraxy”—the correct performance of rituals, at which automation and robots can excel, meaning they can be “spiritually incorruptible.” Walters concludes that “Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions in South Asia are increasingly being imagined as post- or transhuman: deploying technological ingenuity to transcend human weaknesses because robots don’t get tired, forget what they’re supposed to say, fall asleep or leave. More specifically, this means that robotic automation is being used to perfect ritual practices in East Asia and South Asia—especially in India and Japan—beyond what would be possible for a human devotee, by linking impossibly consistent and flawless ritual accomplishment with an idea of better religion. Modern robotics might then feel like a particular kind of cultural paradox, where the best kind of religion is the one that eventually involves no humans at all.”

(The Conversation, https://religionnews.com/2023/03/13/as-robots-perform-hindu-rituals-some-devotees-fear-theyll-replace-worshippers/)